To an extent, how a farmer takes care of the pasture reflects a philosophy of conservation. Food Animal Concerts Trust recently featured “Conservation Stewardship Program Practices for Grazing Lands” presented by Chris Muse, co-owner of Muse 3 Farm.

Begun in 2018 by a group of brothers, Muse 3 Farm is enrolled in a USDA-NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Muse spoke about how the program affects his farm, but noted “practices and standards can vary by state, so make sure you meet with your local NRCS representative in your state.”

In general, a CSP helps farmers build upon any established conservation efforts and helps them improve their operation through expanding those and starting new practices. Farmers must agree to a five-year contract and document their adherence to the program to receive annual payments for implementing those practices.

It’s not just for large farms. Muse 3 has 206 acres, including 40 that were timberland until 2019 (the brothers converted them to grazing land); 60 acres that had been in pasture for more than 40 years; 43 acres that they are transitioning to silviculture; and 63 acres that are currently timberland.

They graze 40 head of cattle, 20 sheep, 18 goats and 150 broiler chickens in 10 paddocks with some mixed grazing.

“We wanted to focus on soil health to have healthy plants and healthy animals and hopefully that will lead to healthy humans,” Muse said.

Rotational grazing and some multispecies grazing are among Muse’s strategies for land conservation. Funding from FACT’s Fund-a-Farmer grants enabled Muse to provide a fresh water supply to each paddock.

With its partnership with NRCS, Muse 3 Farm has put together a plan for the property. This includes herbaceous weed treatment to create desired plan communities consistent with the ecological site; establishing a monarch butterfly habitat along fence lines; improving nutrient uptake efficiency and reducing risk of nutrient losses on pastures; and reducing the risk of pesticides in surface water and air by using specific IPM techniques.

“What I like about the NRCS activities is they may be things you’re already doing – or if you’re not, they won’t take much more effort,” Muse said.

For the weed treatment, they were already multi-species grazing. They allow the sheep, goats and chickens to take care of most of the weeds and bush-hog the paddocks every second or third rotation, allowing the trimmings to lie in the pasture to improve organic matter. Muse did have to add to the routine a light application of herbicide to control vegetation around the wood line and fence line.

Conservation Stewardship Program protects grazing land

“Don’t be afraid to try new things,” said Chris Muse of Muse 3 Farm. Photo courtesy of Chris Muse

Establishing a butterfly habitat was not previously part of the farm’s plan.

“We had not really thought about this, but the local agent said we had the perfect structure and we could establish a monarch butterfly habitat with milkweed to attract butterflies and bees,” Muse said. “It’s great for our soil and plants. We decided to take this one on for the next five years.”

Once they planted the border near some of their paddocks, they need only to monitor its progress for the next five years. Since milkweed is toxic to goats and lambs, they keep the lambs out of the areas with milkweed.

To improve nutrient uptake efficiency in the soil and reduce risk of nutrient losses, they had already performed soil testing. In the area they transitioned from timber to grass, the pH was so low that liming was needed. NRCS also advised moving their supplemental hay to different areas to help spread out the organic matter.

Reducing the risk of pesticides in surface water involves the IPM techniques known as PAMS: prevention actions; avoidance actions; monitoring actions; and suppression actions.

Prevention includes cleaning equipment and gear. Avoidance means maintaining healthy soil and diverse plant communities and using pest resistant varieties, crop rotation and refuge management.

Monitoring is looking for pests and beneficial organisms. Suppression actions include judicious use of cultural, mechanical, biological and chemical control methods that reduce or eliminate a pest population or its impacts while minimizing risks to non-target organisms.

“We don’t spray pesticides on our grasses, but one of the things we do as part of this is go out and monitor for pests in our grassland,” Muse said. “We track what we’re doing. As we move equipment from one paddock to another, we clean our gear. Armyworms are one of our main pests. Multi-species grazing helps as part of this piece.”

He wants more landowners and farmers to talk with NRCS and develop land conservation plans. But he cautioned that it won’t happen quickly. It takes a little back-and-forth to develop an acceptable plan.

“It could take a few cycles,” he said. “We were fortunate to be approved when we submitted our plans.” NRCS accepted Muse 3 Farm’s first plan in 2018, which the farm renewed in 2023.

Farmers must perform annual and end-of-cycle reporting. It’s also vital to keep receipts and an inventory of anything purchased to support the plan, like seeds, fertilizer, plants and materials. Muse also advised regular communication with your NRCS agent.

“Don’t be afraid to try new things,” he said. “We had not thought about monarch butterflies. We’re seeing them appear now. The milkweed is now something we’ve implemented as part of our tours. We take visitors along our fence line so they can see them there.”

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant